Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel

This photo, made available under the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 license, shows Tokyo’s iconic Imperial Hotel in January 2012.

The Parkside Diner at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel offers patrons a bird’s eye view of Miyuki-dori Street, Japan’s largest cultural hub of another Asian nation: South Korea.

Lined with ethnic food stores, restaurants and clothiers, the 984-foot stretch marries customs from two of the East’s most influential countries.

Greenwood Partnership Alliance CEO Heather Simmons Jones enjoyed coffee and breakfast against such a vibrant backdrop on Sept. 19, 2016 as part of a week-long stay at the hotel.

A month later, carbon fiber manufacturing giant Teijin — which has its global headquarters in the same Chiyoda ward as the hotel — announced plans to build a $620 million facility along Highway 246, marking one of the largest economic development projects in Greenwood County’s history and creating 200 jobs.

In May 2018, Jones was in Belgium for five days — putting her in line for a flight to Basel, Switzerland where she could meet with officials from Lonza, the parent company of Capsugel.

Both European nations are biotech hubs, and Jones traveled to Belgium with state Chamber of Commerce officials to attend the Flanders @BIO International Convention. It’s a 6 1/2-hour flight from Brussels to the Swiss city where Lonza’s skyscraper headquarters is located.

Two weeks before Jones’ European arrival, county officials approved an incentive package for “Project Chanticleer,” a $47 million expansion of Lonza’s site at 535 N. Emerald Road that will bring 30 jobs.

Between airfare, hotel accommodations and day-to-day expenses, the two trips combined cost more than $5,300.

“What we do is a relationship business,” Jones said. Since 2007, Greenwood County has seen $1.36 billion worth of announced investments and 68% of it — or $936 million — has come from internationally-based firms.

Although Teijin and Lonza had already announced major expansion plans in Greenwood prior to Jones’ visit, she said the goodwill trips are key to maintaining relations with foreign direct investors who are considering future growth plans in the region.

“It’s paramount to meet with companies on their home soil not only in the early stages, but continue to thank them for their investment. Also, it is a common practice to have them introduce us to their suppliers, other members of the leadership team responsible for decisions on expansions, other companies that they may know personally, and often host events in order to give us the opportunity to tell the Greenwood story to other thriving and growing businesses,” Jones said.

“I was already going to be in Belgium when we looked at adding Lonza on. I didn’t create a trip just for Lonza. Also, since that time, I have hosted Lonza in my office to meet with Congressman (Jeff) Duncan to address other issues that they had expressed. It’s all part of “servicing” our industries,” she said.

The Index-Journal analyzed two years of travel expenses — 2016 through 2018 — from Partnership Alliance staff members — information obtained by the newspaper through July 2018 Freedom of Information Act request — to get an understanding of what economic development officials say it takes for the firm to grab a regional in a globally competitive market.

Several other trips predating the newspaper’s request were also tallied, as they were included in credit card statements and expense reports filed within the time period requested by the Index-Journal.

The agency, with a $1 million annual budget includes $540,000 in combined funding from the county, city, Greenwood Commissioners of Public Works and Greenwood Metropolitan District, allocates about $15,000 a year on travel.

The Partnership Alliance uses a zero-based budgeting formula, basing projected costs on actual prior year expenses.

In addition to flight itineraries, the Partnership Alliance provided the Index-Journal with credit card statements, receipts and in some cases, agendas and marketing materials for events attended mostly by Jones or James Bateman, the alliance’s director of business development.

Among the newspaper’s findings:

• No member of the Greenwood Partnership Alliance flew first class on any trip

• In many cases, public transportation was used, although ride share services, car rentals and in one case, the retention of a personal driver were also paid for

• Up to $2,000 in annual reimbursements for travel were made to the Greenwood Partnership Alliance through its membership with the larger Upstate Alliance, a 10-county consortium that represents economic development interests on a regional scale

• All international trips were made as part of a larger travel group — including state Department of Commerce and Upstate Alliance officials, or both. However, single day trips were taken at times to accommodate the schedules of company executives.

On Aug. 13, 2018, the Partnership Alliance posted to its website a lengthy explanation of how international travel plays into its recruitment and retention strategy. Officials acknowledged it was partly in response to the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request. It was written by Paul Cuenin, the Alliance’s marketing director.

“There’s a lot of thought that goes into that. You can ask James or any other staff member, I’m like, ‘treat it like it’s your money.’ I think most of us don’t go out on an ongoing basis and have $80 steaks, so I always say if it makes you get that little tingle in your tummy, don’t do it,” Jones said.

Cuenin’s explanation of the Alliance’s travel strategy mirrors its corporate philosophy.

“To let people know about the great business opportunities in Greenwood County. With over 3,007 counties in the United States, you have to go out and tell people why Greenwood County is the best choice for their business investment,” he wrote. “Additionally, sometimes when a company is acquired or merges the corporate leadership has no familiarity with the community. When expansion opportunities arise, it can become important to have a face-to-face conversation with corporate leadership.”

The state’s Department of Commerce has five international offices in Munich, Shanghai, Tokyo, Seoul and Gurugram, India. Each year, the agency drafts a calendar of state-sanctioned trips for trade shows, business summits and other events.

Those get turned over to the state’s eight regional economic development alliances, which work with members in determining which best suit their needs.

“The trips we take are directly linked to our strategic plan, and what we think is our target, so we’re not taking trips just because the state’s taking a trip. There’s got to be a purpose for it,” said Thornwell Dunlap III, president of Countybank and treasurer of the Partnership Alliance’s board.

Jones said taking off for faraway lands might be the most attention-grabbing part of her job from a public relations perspective, but it’s grueling and sometimes dangerous.

In April 2017 while in northern Spain, Jones was robbed. A police report is included in the documents provided to the Index-Journal, which showed that $500 in U.S. currency along with “multiple credit/debit and gift cards” were taken. She also had to replace her driver’s license.

During an India trip in late 2018, she was struck by a car.

“What I hope really comes out of this is, it’s not a vacation,” said Dunlap, who traveled to China in 2007 as part of a Partnership Alliance delegation. “Because I’ve been on these trips, and they’re not.”

In 2019, the Upstate Alliance is hosting 27 “outbound” events — with locations ranging from Dubai to Detroit.

Jacob Hickman, the Alliance’s director of business recruitment, said bringing local experts to foreign markets enhances the odds of finding a new lead, winning expansion projects or luring investors to look at an area net yet on their radar.

“It’s a way to mitigate risk as companies are considering international investment,” he said. “Existing industry is going to yield the majority of capital investment and job creation in your communities, so it’s important to focus on what you have and nourish that, and make sure they have all the resources they need to remain sustainable.”

Jones, whose trip to India last year was built around talks with life sciences companies, said her presence there put Greenwood on the map.

“We were sitting with several different companies in the bio and life sciences arena, one of them had a very amazingly specific connectivity to the Greenwood Genetic Center. The team that I was with, being from (state) commerce, did not pick up or understand the opportunity that was presented when the company was going through their elevator pitch,” Jones said.

“But because I was there, I was able to pull that together and say, ‘Let me tell you about this.’ Commerce (officials) can’t know granular-level stuff about every single entity and we kind of like to say that ‘nobody sells Greenwood like Greenwood,’ and if we’re not part of the conversation, then we may be missing opportunities,” she added.

She visited five cities in five days, and attended 20 out of the 57 meetings set up by the state’s commerce department.

Four Indian projects are in the Partnership Alliance pipeline, although that doesn’t mean they’ll end in success.

“India, from top to bottom, is Maine to Florida, so a lot of activity from getting to Point A to Point B. Four to five meetings a day, you’re getting up at 5, 5:30 in the morning, getting in a car, you’re going to meetings all day and you’re going at 8:30, 9 ‘clock to the airport, eating KFC in the airport every night — literally, flying and getting to your hotel at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning and doing that consistently every day. When I got there, I actually did not sleep for 29 hours,” Jones said.

Partnership Alliance officials met with an Index-Journal reporter in their conference room, which is equipped with a large TV, webcam and speakerphone system.

It’s evidence, Jones said, of the agency’s reliance on technology in lieu of always meeting face-to-face.

“I have a 13-year-old son I’m raising by myself. It doesn’t behoove me to try and go see every single person. James has two children; you can’t do it. If it makes better sense and is a better use of resources to do it using modern technology, we all win,” she said.

International investment in South Carolina is a huge economic driver, with foreign companies spending $19 billion and bringing 42,000 jobs to the state since 2011 — 7% of the entire workforce.

That’s why, Hickman said, it’s important that would-be investors can speak directly with representatives who have a deep understanding of local communities — their infrastructure, educational components, housing availability and other variables.

“The reason you need to spend extra time in those markets is when you’re engaging with middle-market companies that don’t have the resources to go the U.S., they’re going to need a lot more hand holding and it’s going to take longer for them to make decisions, so it’s important for us to be over there and help them customize a market analysis and keep reassuring them that South Carolina is a good entry point to the U.S.,” Hickman said. “Existing industry is going to yield the majority of capital investment and job creation in your communities, so it’s important to focus on what you have and nourish that, and make sure they have all the resources they need to remain sustainable.”

Partnership Alliance board’s former chairwoman, Kristin Manske, said Greenwood County has seen $1.36 billion worth of announced investments since 2007, with $1.2 billion in the past five years. Of that, $936 million — or 68% — has been from international companies.

“It comes back to the outcomes and projects won while she’s away, it’s not just about the traveling. The community might not know all the actions that happen behind the scenes until a project is announced,” Mankse said.

There’s also a cultural and cost component to the Greenwood Partnership Alliance’s travel strategy. Asian investors, for example, insist on interpersonal communication, while in Europe, having a beer at lunch is considered the norm.

It’s also why, while in Belgium, Jones rented a Mercedes rather than another make or model — because it was the more inexpensive option, and the reason behind her purchase of a La Trappe Tripel beer while dining with an Upstate Alliance delegation and other officials at Het Morrinneken, a fashionable restaurant in Leuven, Belgium, during that May 2018 trip.

“In terms of the practice of it, if you are you with a prospect, a center of influence, a site consultant, generally they’re at home so we say, ‘Where would be a convenient place for us to meet?’ We don’t want to take them to Chili’s, so there’s a lot of guidance given to us by the person we’re meeting with,” Jones said. “In European countries, having a beer at lunch is customary, and a beer may be cheaper than water in some cases, so in a lot of cases we just go with the flow. We’re not kicking back liquor at lunch, but there are certain customs and cultural things that we acknowledge.”

Hickman said those lunch meetings and friendly conversations around boardroom tables can help push a potential investment from a maybe to a yes.

“It’s always very beneficial for our partners to travel with us because it reinforces the message that South Carolina is backed by the community and we all play very well together in the same sandbox. If we are talking to an organization in a board room in Belgium, it can be very beneficial for them to hear what an individual county provides,” Hickman said. “Having state and counties to really break down what those incentive packages look like and what those different elements are, so a Greenwood Promise may register very well with a company, so it’s important to have a very good team, and that’s why South Carolina has performed so well with the economic development system that we’ve created.”

Jones said she remains cost-conscious no matter where she goes.

“When I was in Europe, I was gone for 11, 12 days. I had two roller bags and my briefcase. That’s not the easiest thing to do when you’re going to a city from another city. Actually moving as a single person three bags up on a platform to get onto a train is not the easiest thing as a single female, so sometimes there are schedules to take into consideration, there is the logistics of just being able to get all that stuff from Point A to Point B,” Jones said.

“There are many times when it would have been a lot nicer for me to say, ‘I want a driver,’ but usually I choose what I think the public would be most OK with,” she said.

James Bateman, who does much of the domestic travel for the Partnership Alliance, said one or two-day long conferences, such as the August 2016 one he attended at North Carolina State University for the Global Carolina Connections Conference on International Investment — is where some of the strongest leads can be generated.

That trip cost $197.30 for a hotel room.

“The same strategy applies from international to the domestic travel and especially on the existing industry side,” Bateman said.

Partnership Alliance’s monthly meetings — which are open to the public — include travel updates.

Manske said all travel is pre-approved. Jones and Bateman communicate in real time with members as conditions change, such as canceled flights or rebooked hotel rooms.

“The community might not know all the actions that happen behind the scenes up until a project is announced. It comes back to the outcomes and projects won while she’s away. It’s not just about the traveling,” Manske said.

Even so, Partnership Alliance executives are sensitive to the optics of their travel routines, though Jones said some of the criticism can be frustrating.

“The generalization, I think is, I get paid to work 8 hours a day, and when I am away from home, I am working 24 hours a day. If I decide I want to go run one evening before dinner and I can pack that in and still make it to my appointment that’s my prerogative. If I decide I want to take time to go to the market, if such time exists to pick up something for (son), that’s kind of my prerogative provided I’m doing what is required for the job and I’m not incurring Partnership expenses,” she said.

Dunlap, who is also head of the Partnership Alliance board’s finance committee, said all expenses are checked against credit card statements and spot screened by an outside auditor.

“I think there’s an element of reasonableness in travel that I look for,” Dunlap said. “I look at that cost, and if it’s within the realm of what other trips are then I know overall, it’s probably reasonable so then you’re kind of spot-checking for something that doesn’t look right. You can go so deep, but then it comes down to, ‘Do you trust the person that’s going, and do you trust the results?’”

Follow Index-Journal former staff writer Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.